THE West Gallery concert of carols and readings by the Ridgeway Singers and Band has become such a firm favourite with Artsreach audiences that for many it has become the “official start” of Christmas.
The concerts, this year at the little church on the hill at Kingston, overlooking Corfe Castle, and historic St Mary’s parish church in Cerne Abbas, were as usual directed and led by historian, actor and musician Tim Laycock and Mellstock Band stalwart and master of the serpent, Phil Humphries.
Each year – this is the third – they perform newly discovered carols from the West Gallery tradition, from villages across the county, extending beyond the original South Dorset Ridgeway area to include the Purbecks and the Blackmore Vale.
The music and the carols are part of a tradition that goes back centuries and was celebrated by Thomas Hardy, most famously in his novel, Under The Greenwood Tree. Hardy knew the tradition and the music well – both his father and grandfather played, fiddle and bass viol (cello) respectively, for the church in Puddletown and later in Stinsford. It is easy to imagine that the musicians in Thomas Hardy’s novels and short stories are drawn from life, from hearing his father and grandfather talk, and from what he saw and heard as a youngster.
The musicians who played from the West Gallery (hence the name) were gradually replaced during the 19th century by new-fangled organs, occasioning the sort of resistance and criticism that attended the arrival of guitars and “new” hymns in the late 20th!
The Ridgeway Singers and Band were created as part of the Rooting Around the Ridgeway project, exploring the history and oral traditions of the area.
It’s not just about the old tunes, there are also new carols. The Cerne Abbas concert included both. There was Waterloo, a fiddle tune from the manuscript of Benjamin Rose of Belchalwell, from 1820, a version of Hark The Herald Angels Sing from the important Durweston collection, Shepherds Keeping Watch By Night, from the Piddle valley, Rejoice, Ye Tenants Of The Earth, a classic West Gallery carol from Puddletown, and One Bright Star, a new Ridgeway carol by Tim Laycock.
During this summer, Phil, Tim and the Ridgeway singers and musicians played at Kimmeridge as part of the Landmark Trust’s 50th anniversary celebrations, and the sea song Rolling Home, which they sang then, was included in the Christmas programme.
The first reading was of GW Greening’s introduction to a BBC radio broadcast from Durweston at Christmas 1938, in which the presenter talks about the Durweston Choir “going the rounds as for centuries.”
There were also readings from Under The Greenwood Tree, William Barnes’ poem A Ghost, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Hardy’s A Few Crusted Characters.
As an encore, before warm mulled wine and mince pies, the Ridgeway Singers and Band performed a Hardy family favourite, Hail Happy Morn! A joyful finale to another delightful West Gallery concert.